This article from MercuryNews.Com features frank comments by the man we all know and love, Linus Torvalds.
These give a full insight into Linus’ thoughts and give one the distinct feeling that we are not the only sane person left in a mad world: From this article it’s clear there is at least one other!
Linus Torvalds is the creator of the Linux operating system, the open source version of Unix that is sweeping through the software world in a direct challenge to Microsoft. He is a technical leader and an outspoken advocate of open source development, which allows software users to develop and modify their own versions of software for free. He spoke candidly with Mercury News staff writer Dean Takahashi about the lawsuit from SCO Group versus IBM (where Big Blue is accused of illegally putting Unix code into Linux), on Microsoft and open source development. He also shed light on his decision to leave chip maker Transmeta for a Linux corporate software consortium, the Open Source Development Lab. Here is an edited transcript:
Q: The SCO Group has sued IBM for illegally contributing Unix code to Linux. Do you believe this episode reveals any vulnerabilities in the open source movement?
A: Not really. Open source software is very visible. That means it’s very easy to see if there is something wrong. I think that is a good thing. I think the whole point is that, with the kind of transparency you get with open source, people are a lot less likely to ever have intellectual property issues. I compare it to stealing a car. Do you steal a car in the bright daylight with a lot of people around? Or do you steal a car, go for a joyride at 4 am in the morning when there aren’t a lot of people around. With open source, there is a lot of daylight. A lot of people looking at the code. You don’t really go around and steal things.
Q: There was some mention of the origins of Linux being murky.
A: There has been a lot of rumor. It’s more of an allegation. It’s complete crap. Quite the reverse. If you look at murky, it’s SCO’s allegations that are murky. With Linux code, you can see how it’s been developed. You can see who applied patches. You can see when they got applied. It’s all in the open.
Q: They were referring to the original creation of Linux.
A: No, it’s not an issue. Some of the history might be slightly hard to find, but compared to other projects, it’s a lot better documented than any proprietary operating system ever. Most of the stuff that has been on public mailing lists is archived.
Q: How about the history of Unix itself. Is it hard to follow?
A: There was a lawsuit between AT&T and Berkeley. AT&T sued UC Berkeley for copyright infringement because the Berkeley version of Unix was made available openly with the Berkeley license. It took a few years but it was shown that it wasn’t Berkeley that stole code from AT&T but it was AT&T that stole code from Berkeley, removed Berkeley copyrights, and they ended up settling out of court. So there is no judge that has said so officially but it was believed that Berkeley had done nothing wrong. This is the same code at issue. In that case, there was a clear genetic continuation. Now SCO is trying to use the same code that already failed a test once and to apply it to something where there isn’t the same genetic continuation.
Q: For our readers who don’t know the origins of Linux, can you talk about how it was written given the existence of Unix?
A: The origin was all written by me. For the first six months or so I was the only person working on Linux. It took almost a year before there was a major contribution from people outside. It’s all original code since day one.
Q: The SCO Group has said that you haven’t had the highest respect for intellectual property rights. How do you react to that?
A: That’s very normal that you always try to twist the truth in lawsuits. The only part that has been irritating is they make it personal. They are showing my e-mails to the Linux community to the press. They called my approach cavalier because I made a joke in an e-mail. OK. Tough. If they can’t take a joke, that’s their problem. I think it backfired. Most journalists do have a sense of humor. They didn’t mind.
Does it surprise you that Linux is a pawn in a battle between big companies, like IBM and Microsoft?
No. I’m not surprised about lawsuits per se. When there is enough money involved, lawsuits are inevitable. I don’t think that’s anything strange. To a large degree, and a reason I made it open source in the first place, was I was interested in the technical side, and not the legal and commercial side. It’s not a pawn that somebody takes over. That’s one of the points. I find it interesting that people have used it in different ways that I didn’t envision and also that they’re raising issues that I don’t care about.
Q: What do you care about?
A: I still care about the technology and the community. The people putting it together. And I do care about if someone has actually copied stuff into Linux that they don’t have rights to, I’d be upset about that. I care about software rights. Right now I’m taking a leave. From what it looks like, as long as it is contract rights between SCO and IBM, I don’t care at all. IBM can defend themselves. And if IBM ends up having to say OK we did something bad, it’s not my problem.
Q: Microsoft took out a license from SCO. Do you think that was necessary and that the timing seemed strange?
A: It’s not exactly clear what they licensed. Most people see it as a PR move. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. I’m not a lawyer.
Q: Do you worry now that, regardless of who wins the lawsuit, that it will do some damage to the adoption of Linux?
A: What I worry most about is these things tend to drag out. If somebody were to show this is what a judge thinks about this case, I’m fairly confident that Linux is OK. I worry that it will drag out forever.
Q: Can you tell us how Linux evolves?
A: It all boils down to hundreds of different groups. A group can be a huge company that has an agenda. Or it can mean one person at a university working on a research project. They have their own thing they want to fix. All of these people make their modifications, and not all of them are accepted. I see it as a kind of ecosystem. You have survival of the fittest. Some changes work better. Sometimes it is for purely technical reasons. It’s just the right thing to do. Sometimes it is for personality reasons. Some people who push their changes are more likely to get things done because they are nicer about it. It’s not really centralized. I am at the center, but I don’t direct any teams. All these people are trying to pull me in different directions. Some groups pull together in the same direction. It’s a very dynamic situation.
Q: Do you think it works well that you have the final say?
A: I think it works well because I don’t have the final say. I have this final say in my tree. It is special in that a lot of people trust my tree. So some people will not use it if it is not my tree. That is a minority. But most people end up using various appendages. My tree is really not. Yes I have the final say on my tree. There is always this forking but there is always this joining. There is more forking than there is joining. But that just means that there are all these dead branches that not end up not being interesting. My branch is to some degree, you could think of it as the trunk of the tree. People try to join back into my tree.
Q: Competitively, do you think this controlled chaos works against a company like Microsoft?
A: I think it ultimately the only way to do software. I have arguments why. The main one is the complexity issue. It’s very hard for someone who doesn’t work like this to keep control of an increasingly complex source base and increasingly complex user base. If you try to control the process too much, you can go straight to the end point where you want to go. That works well if you know where the end point is. If you don’t know where it is and you can’t control where people want to use your software, it’s a very bad thing to have one branch that is very concentrated on one line of development. The best analogy is biological diversity. You have the Linux approach that is fairly diverse and all over the map. Maybe it is not very efficient. But it works very well in the face of complexity and changing circumstances. Changing circumstances will really show that part of that diversity really works. Biology on the other extreme is a very mono culture, which works very well as long as the circumstances stay the same. To some degree they are seen as very efficient and they can live on for a long time. A perfect case in genetics is sharks. They are very stable but they also don’t evolve anymore. That works, but if you want to go past a certain point, it’s a problem.
Q: That’s what Bill Gates is.
A: That’s a fairly good analogy but sharks is a bad word. I should make up another example. Turtles! Turtles are very stable and have been around forever. But they have problems adapting. When humans came along, turtles came under serious threat. The Dodo too. Biodiversity is good and I think it is good in technology as well. If you look at a lot of stable things, you have a certain amount of biodiversity. Look at cars. The U.S. car industry was sloppy. There wasn’t a lot of biodiversity. There no real competition from true diverse species. The Japanese came in and provided new diversity for the market. It was a huge boon for the car industry, though not so good for certain countries. Cars started improving.
Q: If you look at how Microsoft is now struggling to deal with Linux, what do you think?
A: They are not in trouble. I think they are struggling to deal with Linux partly because Linux is undermining them the same way they undercut their competition. If you look at DOS, or maybe compilers, one thing that happened with Microsoft was that these small upstarts came out and had cheaper compilers. DOS was also cheap and it undercut the competition. They never had a competitor like themselves. Then comes somebody who undercuts them and they start acting exactly how all of their competitors acted. If you look at how Unix vendors acted toward Microsoft, they were belittling Microsoft. They were saying yes we’re more expensive but we’re better and we give better support. Whether that was true or not was not the point. The reaction to somebody coming in and undercutting you is for Microsoft exactly the same as the failure mode for their competitors. Microsoft is on the receiving end of this undercutting.
Q: You have left Transmeta (the Santa Clara maker of low-power microprocessors) where you worked for six years. Now you’ve joined the Open Source Development Lab (which is creating a version of Linux for corporations). Can you explain why you took the leave of absence?
A: It’s a number of reasons. One was for the last six months I was spending a lot of time working on the next 2.6 release of Linux. We’re getting close. But I expect it to take a few more months at least. This happened before with other releases. I don’t like doing releases but we have to do them. Before releases you get into a painful mode. Transmeta has been very good to me. This time I felt I’d have a hard time bouncing back to the Transmeta work. I was feeling more guilty about that. I talked to a lot of people there. They knew how I worked. The OSDL thing came along. I asked about that position when I decided I needed to leave. It was a neutral place. I need to concentrate on Linux. Why not let somebody pay me for that? I can’t go to a Linux vendor like Red Hat because I would no longer be seen as neutral.
Q: With Transmeta, their plan didn’t work out as expected. Did that affect your decision to leave them?
A: A lot of companies share that problem. I don’t know. What made it easier to leave now was that it seems to have stabilized lately. We didn’t have the panic problems we had. That made it easier and I didn’t feel like I was a rat leaving a sinking ship. The fact that it didn’t worked out affected a lot of my co-workers more than it did me. I ended up being able to cash in on my dream. It happened in a strange way. But I got my house in the area. In that sense it didn’t affect me. Because the Transmeta dream didn’t work out, it has less resources to do fundamental research. It has to concentrate on the customers and the products. For me, because I’m interested in the crazy stuff, that made Transmeta maybe not as fun as it was five or six years ago. Five or six years ago we did stuff at Transmeta that universities didn’t do. We did fundamental research. That made Transmeta a very special place.
Q: You want to concentrate on going after one monopoly at a time?
A: (Laughs). I never saw Intel as a monopoly. It has competition. To me personally, Intel has always had a healthier position. A lot of people thought, yeah, he’s always going after the big guys. That wasn’t the point of being at Transmeta. I want to do something that is relevant, and if it is relevant there is always somebody else out there.
Q: Do you see any boundaries for Linux? Do you want to go after Wind River and other companies in the embedded software space?
A: That is a traditional company question. If you’re a company, you want to go after certain markets. The point of open source is there is no such thing as certain markets you go after. It’s more like certain companies use Linux to go after a market. The embedded space has been very receptive to Linux. It’s not like Wind River doesn’t exist, but Linux is growing.
Q: Did it surprise you that IBM, this big giant company, embraced Linux?
A: I always thought IBM was interesting. Early on in 1998 and 1999, a lot of people were going through the motions of embracing Linux. They would mention it in a press release. But IBM always followed through. Because I was never interested in the commercial market, I never found fault with how people used Linux there. I enjoyed that IBM started porting Linux to the S390, found that hugely amusing. I thought, OK, somebody has done a few too many drugs. But it ended up being a master stroke. The people who started it just did it because they found it interesting. It ended up working out really well.
Q: You mentioned you wanted to end up at a neutral space. Do you feel like a religious leader? Or what kind of leader do you see yourself as?
A: I try to avoid that. I think I’ve been fairly successful. Some of the free software people don’t like how I’m not very religious. I try to be pragmatic. People know that. At the same time I have a very high profile and because people trust me and want to continue to trust me and I want people to trust me, I want to make sure that there is nothing that has the appearance of being bad. Going to work for a specific Linux company would, even if I work the way I’ve always worked, it would still look like I was favoring one vendor over another. You can’t avoid it in the environment we’re in.. I want to make sure everyone sees that I’m neutral. They may disagree with me and quite often they do. But at least they know I’m not working for the competition. I may not care about their viewpoint, but they know I do it for my own personal reasons. That makes people a lot more accepting. That makes it easier for me to make decisions. People will accept those decisions more if they understand they are my personal decisions and not because I am trying to screw them over as a competitor. It gives me more authority. That’s the only authority I have. I don’t have legal rights. I have one special right since I started Linux as the owner of the collective copyright. From a license standpoint I don’t have any special rights.
Q: What about cashing in on Linux? Where do you stand on where it is appropriate for you to make money from Linux?
A: I’m cashing in in the sense that I have a good salary. I did get stock options and I accepted them when there were no strings attached. In the good old days there were a few Linux companies that gave me stock options as a thank-you. Nobody thought they would be worth that much when they gave them to me. I bought a house in this area so they were worth a lot. I’m doing OK. I’m not a Larry Ellison. There only needs to be one.
Q: You moved from Finland. How do you like living in Silicon Valley.
A: Some parts I love. I have a convertible. I will never ever move to a place where I can’t drive a convertible. I like the dynamics. Sometimes it’s sad how you go into a random restaurant and all the tables around you talk about technology. At the same time, it is nice to be where you understand the people. Genetically maybe not very homogenous. But perspective wise, it’s a nice place to be. It’s too crowded. It’s too expensive.
Q: And what about the bust?
A: Everybody was expecting it. Everybody was calling it a bubble. The people who now complain about it. They didn’t complain two years ago. What I think is sad is the people who came here two years ago, just as the bust was starting, had jobs for not very long, got laid off, and had to move back. They changed their lives. That’s nasty. I remember it took me four years to get a green card. The people who came in at the wrong time, they had to go back. The social issues there are huge.
Q: Any irony that you might be deposed by (SCO counsel) David Boies, who led the case against Micosoft?
A: I was a bit surprised. I realize that David Boies wasn’t against Microsoft. It’s that he likes high-profile cases against big companies. That’s what he specializes in. In that sense, SCO vs IBM makes sense. It’s a nice twist but it doesn’t mean anything.